In the summer of 2010, I was enjoying my first fulltime sportswriting job with the Fort Frances Times in northwestern Ontario. I was settled into the community after a winter covering the junior hockey team, the Lakers, the high-school teams, and the bustling local curling scene.
But then a particularly tragic summer hit Sunset Country. To start, beloved local hockey and baseball player Clayton Windigo died in an accident when he and some friends were jumping off a bridge. Later in the week, Lakers assistant coach Bob Mainville drowned in a boating accident. Mainville was also an RCMP officer who had reached out to the Windigo family, helping them cope.
Perhaps in other newsrooms, those stories would have gone to a full-on news reporter, but in this instance, both were my responsibility.
Naively and selfishly, I couldn't help but think that calling grief-stricken family and friends wasn't what I signed up for. Sure, there are ups and downs as a sportswriter, as teams and their players struggle or succeed, or if an athlete gets hurt—even in a fast-paced, hard-hitting, high-contact activity—it hardly seems like a matter of life or death. Maybe there's a lengthy recovery that makes for a perfect, inspiring story of persistence upon his or her return. You have a sort of optimistic faith that they'll return to action, that you haven't seen the last of them.
Being in my early 20s at the time, there was probably a combination of factors that led to this attitude: the sense of invincibility from that time of your life, of course, but since athletes are also active, they should be in pretty good health, too.
I'd never covered Windigo and had limited interactions with Mainville, as head coach Wayne Strachan was willing to talk, win or lose, but a couple years after I'd moved on to Portage la Prairie, Man., I caught word that former Laker sparkplug Jaret Leclair was one of four killed in a car accident near his hometown. He was only 20. After I left Portage for Winnipeg, news broke that former high-school hockey captain Chad Miller died from an illness in Chicago, where he was playing for Robert Morris University.
At the admitted risk of getting a little too navel-gazey, it was a strange feeling to think that someone whose words and photos you'd immortalized in print was gone so soon. A few postgame interviews here or there obviously aren't enough to get someone's character, but even after a couple chats, you get at least a sense of their personality.
When the scope of the horror of the Humboldt Broncos tragedy was revealed, it was hard not to think back on these others that were lost—not just because it added to the list of lives cut decades too short, but also because what happened to the Broncos could have just as easily have been the Lakers, the Portage Collegiate Institute Trojans, or any other team that cuts through vast swaths of the prairies to get to its next game.
Heck, I covered a couple Broncos games when they were the Saskatchewan Jr. 'A' champions and the Portage Terriers were the Manitoba representative in the ANAVET Cup series to determine which team would head to the national RBC Cup tournament. It's a tenuous connection, since the staff and players were all turned over from that 2012 series, but you still feel a connection nonetheless. The spirit and culture of that Broncos team that bested Portage in seven hard-fought games certainly lingered in this team and will hopefully continue to permeate the club when it next takes to the ice.
It's hard to explain why this tragedy struck a chord nationally, and even internationally, in ways that other horrific occasions haven't. The response, including the GoFundMe campaign that amassed more than $15 million, and shows of support like the Jersey Day and Sticks Out campaign, was certainly heartening.
Maybe it's because sports, especially hockey, are so prevalent and intertwined with Canadian lore. Every so often, I'll check out the hockeydb.com pages of the kids I used to cover, keeping an eye on how they're doing at various levels. It probably never even crosses their mind that someone who only watched them for a season or two many years ago still has an interest in what they're doing today from the other side of the country.
But for the Broncos, there won't be any NCAA Division III or minor-league or European-circuit careers to follow. However, sadly, there will be millions who still think of them.